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Margherita Giacobino: L’età ridicola (The Ridiculous Age)

I have a neighbour who is eighty-five. Old age is a bugger, he commented. This, to a great extent, is what this book is about.

Our heroine is an elderly lady tired of grinding through life and being ground down by it, as tired as an elderly earthworm who lives in a cemetery. She also seems to have at least incipient dementia. She reads of a terrorist attack in Birmingham and thinks her friend Germana was killed in it before later remembering that Germana has been dead for three years . What did Germana die of? I don’t remember but she had reached the age where family and friends no longer feel the need to justify her passing. She later comments They say this is a world of old people. They say it to make us feel we are to blame. We are old and we are too many. We ought to turn up spontaneously for a programme of voluntary extermination and die with a smile on our lips.

She has a home help, an immigrant called Gabriela who protects her from the world. Gabriela immigrated to Italy ten years ago. She has a a sort of boyfriend (who is also a sort of cousin – they grew up together) called Dorin, who has converted to Islam and plans on going to the Middle East.Gabriela will not marry him. Gabriela has studied some foreign languages – English, German and Russian but, like nearly all immigrants ifrom her country, she has just picked up Italian as she went along. Gabriela is happier with our narrator than with her previous employers, as our narrator does not smell and can change herself.

Outside things are not good. There are homeless people asleep in the streets, though she does occasionally give then some money. In the world at large, as she sees in the papers, there are a lot of unpleasant things going on – terrorist attacks, crimes against women and other signs that civilisation is falling apart. Gabriela asks her why people set off bombs. She replies I don’t know anything.

Our narrator, perhaps not surprisingly, thinks a lot about death (our acquaintances are 99% dead or no longer able to get about) but she also thinks about Nora. Nora occasionally visits her. Nora was her lover who died ten years ago and she has not got over it . She frequently looks at photos of Nora on the computer and keeps her room as it was when she died. She loved her more than her own self. If only grief were capable of finishing her off! Nora appears throughout her book – her illness and treatment, their life together and so on. Why does she continue to live after Nora has gone? The old woman asks herself the same question every morning and has no answer.

Apart from Gabriela, she has two friends. One , of course, is a cat called Venom (he was poisoned but survived.) Venom is getting old. He used to watch the pigeons on the balcony but has given that up, though our narrator continues to watch them and recognises individual ones. Her other friend, of long standing is Malvina. Malvina is better off and has her own bodyguard, Ana. They meet , every day, weather permitting, and go for a stroll, perhaps a cup of coffee or a snack and to do the shopping with Gabriela and Ana. Malvina seems to be further advanced than our narrator with dementia. She frequently sees the late Germana for example and, despite the presence of Ana is easily scammed. As a result our narrator considers inviting Malvina to live with her but Malvina is reluctant.

Eventually, Osvaldo, Malvina’s nephew intervenes and Malvina is shunted off to a care home. Our narrator visits her there and even tries to persuade her to leave and live with her but to no avail. Malvina thinks our narrator is Nora and has clearly deteriorated. When she looked at the photo Gabriela had taken of Malvina, she saw a a great nothingness. And it is not just Malvina. Malvina does not have. room of her own so our narrator sees several of the other residents, many of whom seem to have advanced dementia.

So our narrator is left alone with Gabriela. We also follow Gabriela’s issues, particularly her dealings with her half-sister, Petra and Petra’s abusive husband, their daughters (not generally model citizens) as well as Dorin’s occasional unpleasant appearances. Indeed with Gabriela now virtually the only person left with whom she is close their relationship takes on a greater importance and our narrator learns more about Gabriela and her family, generally not positive and inadvertently gets more involved in Gabriela’s life.

Death plays more and more of a role as she thinks both about Nora’s death, the death of others she knows and her own death. Should she try euthanasia? suicide? With all that she reads in the papers, the violence in Gabriela’s family and indeed the unsavoury characters she sees in the neighbourhood, death is never far away.

In the hands of a lesser writer this could have been something of a mundane book. Dying and death are not exactly fun topics. However Giacobino is such a superb writer that the the character of our unnamed narrator shines through. Her intelligence, her willingness to confront her situation, her humour, her devotion to Nora but also to Malvina and Gabriela, her strength of character, her keen observation of the world around her, acceptance of her situation and her willingness to take the initiative when necessary make her a formidable character and not a doddery old lady, as she so easily could have been and therefore make this book a joy to read with a surprising but superb ending.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Mondadori
First English translation in 2024 by Dedalus
Translated by Graham Anderson